Parshas Noach (5771)
There are many different kinds of commentaries, insights and explanations on the weekly Torah portion written by great rabbis and scholars through the ages – but one of my favorites is known as the “Chassidishe vort”.
The words Chassidishe vort (pronounced chah-see-dish-er vawrt) literally mean “Hasidic word” in Yiddish (the word vort, when used in this context, means an insight), and refer to a particular genre of Torah commentary that was produced by the great Masters and Rebbes of the Chassidic movement, which was founded in the late 1700’s by Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov.
Whereas other commentaries on the Torah might focus on understanding the pshat, or simple meaning, and the drush, or deeper levels of meaning of the text, a Chassidishe vort is primarily interested in bringing out an important lesson or insight from the Torah’s words, and will often ignore the text’s simple meaning. The Chassidishe vort uses the medium of verses in the Torah – sometimes even with inappropriate punctuation - to teach us moral lessons that are true and eternal, irrespective of the source of that teaching.
Allow me to share with you two “classic” examples of the Chassidishe vort that emanate from the first two verses of this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Noach:
The Torah portion begins: “These are the ‘toldos’ (offspring) of Noah – Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with G-d – Noah had begotten three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth” (Genesis 6:9-10).
Rashi quotes a Midrash which explains that the Torah interrupted its listing of Noah’s offspring with a description of his righteousness to teach us that the primary “offspring” of the righteous are their good deeds, for the worthwhile things that a person does are his main legacy.
The great Chassidic Master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, better know as the Kotzker Rebbe (1787–1859), explained the Midrash homiletically as follows: The ‘toldos’ being referred to here are not a person’s “offspring”, but rather his yichus, or lineage – the great people from whom he is descended.
And the lesson the Midrash is teaching us is that simply ‘descending’ from great tzaddikim (righteous people) does not make one into a tzaddik. The main yichus and pedigree of a righteous person is all the good deeds that he performs in his own lifetime.
You know what they say: Good yichus is just a bunch of zeros – until you put your one in front of it. (I once heard a rabbi say that good yichus is like a potato – the best part is under the ground!)
How many people do we know who descend from very special parents and grandparents but who sadly don’t amount to much in life because they rest on their laurels, riding on the fame and renown of those who came before them? What a powerful lesson the Kotzker Rebbe is teaching us through his Chassidic interpretation of a well-known Midrash!l
A second Chassidishe vort comes from the famous Chassidic Rebbe, Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1827), who uses a brilliant play-on-words in the second verse of the Torah portion to teach a powerful lesson as to how a Jew can succeed in life:
The Torah tells us that Noah’s offspring were Shem, Ham, and Japheth (as the second verse ends: “es Shem, es Cham, v’es Yafes”). Based on the Midrash quoted earlier in which the word ‘offspring’ alludes to the good deeds that a person does, Reb Simcha Bunim explains this verse as follows:
A Jew who wants to do good deeds and be a tzaddik like Noah, needs to do three things: (1) “es Shem” – he needs to remember that Hashem is above him at all times (the Hebrew name Shem also means “name”, as in Hashem, the “Name” of G-d); (2) “es Cham” – he needs to do mitzvos (good deeds) with chamimus, with great passion and fervor (the Hebrew name Cham also means “heated” and passionate); (3) “v’es yafes” – he needs to make sure that all his actions are ‘beautiful’ and pleasant in they eyes of those around him, i.e. to be a real mentsh in the way he acts at all times (the Hebrew name Yafes also means yafeh, or beautiful).
These two Chassidishe vorts (technically ‘vertlach’, the plural of vort in Yiddish) are but a tiny sampling of the amazing and deep insights that the great Chassidic Masters shared with their disciples and with all of us. I hope you enjoyed them!
(AS THE CHASSIDIM SAY, “GIT SHABBIS”!)